Ombudsman urges “prescriptive template” for all lawyers in price publication push

Stone: From LeO to the BSB

The process of publishing up-front price information should be achieved through “prescriptive templates” across the legal profession, the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has suggested.

It said publication needed to be more than simply displaying likely prices, stressing the importance of lawyers providing context to their quotes.

In its single response to all of the legal regulators’ consultations on improving transparency, LeO said publication would help manage consumer expectations and consistency of information through a template would enable them to make proper comparisons,

But it cautioned: “Communication is crucial to ensuring that consumers are happy at the end of any service provision.

“We understand the importance of publishing price information to enable ‘shopping around’, but are keen that this should never come at the detriment of keeping the consumer informed throughout the process once a provider has been instructed.

“With this in mind, we would not support the [Council for Licensed Conveyancers] in amending its rules to make estimates provided to consumers binding on the firm (should they be instructed).”

It said this would make it extremely difficult for CLC-regulated firms to explain a change in cost structure “that may be entirely reasonable”.

Even if they used the caveat that the estimate would be “subject to any new information emerging that legitimately affects cost”, LeO foresaw problems with consumer understanding and expectations.

“It might also make the job of the Legal Ombudsman more difficult, as what is considered to be ‘reasonable service’ and what is required of a CLC-regulated firm may begin to diverge.”

LeO said it was “keenly aware” that price was not a reliable measure of quality and as such, we would encourage providers to ensure that a range of information is posted to their website for consumers to consider”.

This included first-tier complaints data. “In order for this to be a reliable indicator of quality, there would need to be some standardisation of what constitutes a complaint as well as consistent reporting of how early in the process a matter had been settled.

“Such reporting might also fail to reflect any improvements in firm’s service or complaint-handling, and might not take account of volumes of work in specific areas of law. Appropriate contextualisation is therefore crucial.”

This would include size of firm (turnover), number of transactions a year, number of first-tier complaints a year, complaint types – “to inform consumer choice in types of issues raised, e.g. if excessive complaints about costs, consumers may look elsewhere – and a link to LeO data on ombudsman decisions.

In the case of CILEx Regulation, IPReg and the Master of Faculties, LeO agreed that publishing first-tier complaints information would be of “limited value” to consumers due to the low numbers of complaints received.

“For this data to be a sufficiently reliable indicator of quality, there would need to be greater numbers of complaints to provide some comparison level between firms. Since consumers are unlikely to be able to use this information to inform their choices, we see no reason to encourage its publication.”

Beyond certain other information – such as description of service, staff, stages and timescales in any legal services where price publication is required – LeO said firms should decide what else they want to publish.

“The Legal Ombudsman recognises that mandatory publication of a large number of data points may become unnecessarily burdensome. Where firms do choose to publish information such as areas of specialism, we would encourage them to make this information clear and concise to facilitate consumer understanding.”

Meanwhile, Kathryn Stone, the outgoing chief legal ombudsman, has been appointed a lay member of the Bar Standards Board. She becomes the parliamentary commissioner for standards next month.

The board has also appointed lay members Lara Fielden – a former BBC producer and broadcasting standards regulator at Ofcom – and Stephen Thornton CBE, a former chief executive in the NHS and currently a council member of the Nursing and Midwifery Council and a non-executive director of the independent responsibility body for the gambling industry, The Senet Group.

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